This republished work outlines the doctrine of justification by faith. Clearly written and rich in theology, it will challenge readers to think discerningly about the implications of the doctrine's historic dispute.
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About the Author
R. C. Sproul (1939–2017) was founder of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian discipleship organization located near Orlando, Florida. He was also founding pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor ofTabletalk magazine. His radio program, Renewing Your Mind, is still broadcast daily on hundreds of radio stations around the world and can also be heard online. Sproul contributed dozens of articles to national evangelical publications, spoke at conferences, churches, colleges, and seminaries around the world, and wrote more than one hundred books, including The Holiness of God, Chosen by God, and Everyone’s a Theologian. He also served as general editor of the Reformation Study Bible.
Read an Excerpt
WHAT WAS WRONG WITH LUTHER?
What was the matter with Martin Luther? some might ask. The matter with Luther was a matter of the greatest possible urgency. The matter with Luther was that sin matters. The matter with Luther was that salvation matters, ultimately and eternally. Luther felt the weight of these matters to a degree few people, if any, have felt them in human history. These issues mattered enough to Luther to compel him to stand against the authority of church and state in a lonely and often bitter contest that made him Luther contra mundum.
Following the ancient Aristotelian form-matter schema, historians have pinpointed the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide ) as the material cause of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. It was the chief matter under dispute. Luther considered it "the article upon which the church stands or falls." At a personal level he understood that it was the article upon which he himself stood or fell.
Thus, since the Reformation the doctrine of sola fide has been the defining doctrine of evangelical Christianity. It has functioned as a normative doctrine because it has been understood as essential to the gospel itself. Without sola fide one does not have the gospel; and without the gospel one does not have the Christian faith. When an ecclesiastical communion rejects sola fide, as Rome did at the Council of Trent, it ceases being a true church, no matter how orthodox it may be in other matters, because it has condemned an essential of the faith. Whereas at Worms Luther stood, at Trent Rome fell and remains fallen to this day.
THE CHARACTER OF GOD
The dilemma Luther experienced in the anguish of his soul was related in the first instance to his correct understanding of the character of God. One of the essential attributes of God (essential in that without it God would not be God) is his justice. The Scriptures clearly reveal that the God of heaven and earth is just. This means far more than that the judgment he renders is equitable. It is not only that God does what is just, but that he does what is just because he is just. His righteous actions flow out of his righteous character.
That God is eternally and immutably just posed for Luther (as it should also pose for us) the ultimate dilemma, because we are not just. We are sinners lacking the perfect justness of God. Our sin violates the supreme standard of righteousness found in God's character. This is the burden Luther felt so keenly, but which we tend to treat lightly. We are inclined to think that God is so merciful that his mercy will annul or cancel out his justice. We assume that God will grade us on a curve and that he is quite willing to negotiate his own righteousness.
As sinners with recalcitrant hearts, human beings have no fear of the justice of God, in part because they are ignorant of his Law and additionally because, when they are aware of it, they hold it in contempt. We have all become, as Jeremiah said of Israel, like a harlot who has lost the capacity to blush (Jer. 6:15; 8:12). We assume that our works are good enough to pass the scrutiny of God at the final tribunal. And we do this despite the apostolic warning that by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified (Rom. 3:20).
People who consider themselves just enough in their own goodness do not tremble before the Law and feel no need for the gospel. For such, the matter of justification is not of great importance. It is merely a "doctrine," and to the contemporary church few things are deemed less important than doctrine. "Doctrine divides," we are told. "What matters is that we have a personal relationship with Jesus. The doctrine of justification doesn't save us; it is Christ who saves us."
Certainly doctrines do divide. Certainly doctrines do not in themselves save us. Certainly we are called to have a personal relationship with Christ. However, doctrine also unites. It unites those who share one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And though doctrines do not save us, they correctly inform us of how we are saved.
It must be added, too, that having a personal relationship with Jesus does not save us unless it is a saving relationship. Everyone has a personal relationship with Jesus. Even the devil has a personal relationship with Christ, but it is a relationship of estrangement, of hostility to him. We are all related to Christ, but we are not all united to Christ, which union comes by faith and faith alone.
Luther understood what David understood when he asked the rhetorical question, "If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand?" (Ps. 130:3). The question is rhetorical because no explicit answer is given. The answer is nevertheless obvious: "No one." No one by himself can stand before a God who takes note of our iniquities, for we are all sinners. The problem is that the Lord does mark iniquities and promises to bring every one of them into judgment. Moreover, as long as we remain outside of Christ we are continually heaping up judgment against the day of wrath.
The only way an unjust person can escape the day of God's wrath is to be justified. Only the justified will stand in that day. That is why the matter of justification is so vital. It is not a mere theological abstraction or a petty doctrine. The struggle of the Reformation was not a contest of shadowboxing, nor was it a tempest in a teapot. It is perilous to think it was much ado about nothing or simply a misunderstanding among theologians and clerics. To be sure there were issues that were confused and obscured in the heat of the debate. But it was crystal-clear that the core issue was the way of justification, and the two sides took not only differing positions but mutually exclusive and irreconcilable positions in the debate.
WHAT IS JUSTIFICATION?
Justification refers to a legal action by God by which he declares a person just in his sight. The Protestant view is often described as "forensic justification," meaning that justification is a "legal declaration" made by God.
What is often overlooked in discussions about justification is that the Roman Catholic communion also has its version of forensic justification. That is, Catholics agree that justification occurs when God declares a person just. However, when evangelicals speak of forensic justification, the phrase is used as a kind of theological shorthand for sola fide, and what is tacit is the assumption that God declares people to be just who in themselves are not just. Rome teaches that God declares people just only when they are in fact just. They are declared to be just only if and when justness inheres within them. Both sides see justification as a divine declaration, but the ground for such a declaration differs radically.
Rome saw justification as meaning "making just," based on the Latin roots for the word justificare (justus and facio, facere), which in Roman jurisprudence meant "to make righteous." For Rome, God only declares to be just those who have first been made just.
The easiest way to understand the evangelical doctrine of justification is to place it against the backdrop of the Roman Catholic view.CHAPTER 2
THE ROMAN CATHOLIC DOCTRINE
The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is sacerdotal. This means that justification is accomplished sacramentally through the ministrations of the priesthood of the church.
Although this understanding embraces and requires each of the seven sacraments put forward by the Roman Church, justification takes place initially through the sacrament of baptism, which Rome defines as justification's "instrumental cause." The language of instrumental causality is drawn from Aristotle's distinctions among various types of causes. He defined an instrumental cause as the means by which a change is effected in something. For example, when a sculptor makes a statue out of a block of stone, the stone would be the material cause, that out of which the thing is made, and the chisel would be the instrumental cause or the instrument by which the statue is shaped.
JUSTIFICATION BEGINS WITH BAPTISM
According to Roman Catholic theology, a person receives the grace of justification in baptism by infusion. That is, the righteousness of Christ is infused or "poured into" the soul of the baptized person. The recipient is cleansed of original sin, sacramentally regenerated, and put into a state of grace. This action is accomplished ex opere operato ("by the working of the work"), which means that the work is efficacious in itself as long as the recipient does nothing to hinder it.
The New Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church puts it this way: "Justification is conferred in baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy" (Liguori, Mo.: Ligouri Press, 1994, p. 482, par. 1992). Thus Rome speaks of justification being "conferred" in baptism and as making people "inwardly just." This is seen as a result of divine mercy.
1. The Necessity of Faith. Baptism is also called "the sacrament of faith." It is important to note that for Rome justification is truly "by faith." So the issue at the time of the Reformation was not whether faith is requisite for justification — both sides acknowledged that — but whether it was the sole requisite. It was the sola of sola fide, not the fide, that was crucial, though differences did exist with respect to the role of faith itself in justification.
That Rome sees faith as necessary for justification is made clear in the sixth session of Trent: "We are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, 'without which it is impossible to please God' (Heb. 11:6) and to come to the fellowship of his sons; and we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification" (Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: Original Text with English Translation, trans. H. J. Schroeder [London: Herder, 1941], pp. 34, 35).
Far from excluding faith as a necessary condition for justification, Rome declares that faith is a necessary ingredient. She declares that: (1) justification is by faith (per fidem); (2) faith is the "beginning" (initium) of salvation; (3) faith is the "foundation" (fundamentum) of justification; and (4) faith is the "root" (radix) of all justification (ibid., p. 313).
Often Protestants have slandered Rome by stating their differences with Rome on justification in a simplistic and erroneous manner, saying that the Protestant view is justification by faith and the Catholic view is justification by works, as if Rome did not make faith a necessary condition for justification. This is wrong. For Rome, faith plays a necessary role in justification, serving as its initiation, foundation, and root.
2. The Insufficiency of Faith. What Rome does not say, and in fact denies, is that faith is a "sufficient condition" for justification. The difference between a necessary condition and a sufficient condition is of paramount importance. Oxygen is a necessary condition for fire, but it is not a sufficient condition. In order to have fire there must also be present the substance that burns or combines with oxygen in combustion, as well as sufficient heat and other things. If all that was required for fire were the mere presence of oxygen, then in every place oxygen was present the world would be in flames.
3. Mortal Sin. For Rome a person may have faith and still not be justified. We see this partly in Rome's view of mortal sin. Rome distinguishes between mortal and venial sins. Mortal sins are called "mortal" because they "kill" or destroy the grace of justification. At Trent Rome declared:
Against the subtle wits of some also, who "by pleasing speeches and good words seduce the hearts of the innocent" (Rom. 16:18), it must be maintained that the grace of justification once received is lost not only by infidelity, whereby also faith itself is lost, but also by every other mortal sin. Though in this case faith is not lost; thus defending the teaching of the divine law which excludes from the kingdom of God not only unbelievers, but also the faithful [who are] "fornicators, adulterers, effeminate, liers with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, railers, extortioners" (I Cor. 6:9f.; I Tim. 1:9f.), and all others who commit deadly sins, from which with the help of divine grace they can refrain, and on account of which they are cut off from the grace of Christ. (Ibid., p. 40)
The concept of mortal sin includes infidelity, which is unbelief. If a person who once had faith loses or abandons that faith, thereby committing apostasy, that person loses justification. By the loss of faith the person loses with it the necessary condition for justification and therefore justification itself.
But, as Trent clearly declared, infidelity is not the only sin by which a person may lose his or her justification. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that people who have not lost faith, indeed may even still be numbered among the "faithful," can lose their justification by committing other deadly sins such as drunkenness or adultery.
The Reformers understood these biblical texts in a different manner. They agreed that people whose lives are characterized by these deadly sins will not enter the Kingdom of God precisely because such lifestyles indicate the absence of true faith, not its presence. This does not preclude the possibility 21 of true believers lapsing into these sins, as David and virtually all the other Bible characters did. We all sin, often greatly. But the Reformers did argue that believers will not stay in such a sinful condition unrepentantly. Though such sins are deemed egregious and worthy of church discipline, in themselves they are not considered mortal.
Calvin argued rightly that all sins are "mortal" in the sense that they deserve death, but no sin is mortal to the true believer in that it kills his justification.
What is most clear from this Tridentine passage is that, according to Rome, a person can have true faith and not be in a state of justification. This clearly indicates that for Rome, though faith is a necessary condition for justification, it is not a sufficient condition for justification. Something else is needed besides true faith for the person to be justified — namely, inherent righteousness. Here the sola of sola fide is demolished.
Again it is important to note that for the Reformers, true faith precludes a person's living consistently in deadly sin, whereas for Rome such a lifestyle is possible for a person who possesses true faith.
4. Cooperating with God's Grace. For Rome justification does not occur until or unless a person cooperates with (co-operare) and assents to (assentire) the grace of justification, by which he or she fully satisfies God's Law. To be declared just by God, a person must in fact be just. Again Trent declared:
For since Christ Jesus himself, as the head into the members and the vine into the branches (John 15:1f.), continually infuses strength into those justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing further is wanting to those justified to prevent them from being considered to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life. (Ibid., p. 41)
Again we see that Rome does not believe we are justified by self-righteousness. In ourselves we lack the strength to become truly just. Rome rejects pure Pelagianism. To be just requires the infusion of grace. However, with the aid and assistance of this infused grace we are able to yield the fruit of good works. And nothing further is needed to fully satisfy the divine Law and truly merit eternal life. Trent continued:
Thus, neither is our own justice established as our own from ourselves (Rom. 10:3; 2 Cor. 3:5), nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated, for that justice which is called ours, because we are justified by its inference in us, that same is [the justice] of God, because it is infused into us by God through the merit of Christ. (Ibid.)
Here we see that the justness by which we are declared 23 just by God is not a justness of righteousness that comes from ourselves. Its origin is in the infusion of grace. But it is nevertheless a righteousness that is in ourselves; that is, it inheres within us. It is at this point that the most volatile issue of the debate resides.
JUSTIFICATION IS RESTORED BY PENANCE
We have seen that according to Rome the grace of justification can be augmented or diminished. This is bad, but the full story is even worse. In reality, faith can be diminished to the point that it is lost altogether by the commission of mortal sins.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Justified by Faith Alone"
Copyright © 2010 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
1 What Was Wrong with Luther?,
2 The Roman Catholic Doctrine,
3 The Evangelical Doctrine,
4 The Nature and Role of Saving Faith,
5 Faith and Works,
For Further Reading,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love Dr. Sproul but sometimes his writing is so deep that I have to read something twice to grasp it but all in all I would certainly recommend it especially if you are struggling with "faith alone or faith by works"
I have bing I the Revoultion for two days. Four, but last night I found out I was a god so... 9, because of school and work. I am a good fighter, I gain the power of stars in my paws when ever I am in need. I also have nine lives. Yes I have only godmod once, and I will never do it again. Yes I am the god of lions.
Ma name: yo canno be seriosla askin dis.<p>Age ma be 14 moos.<p>Signature: forgo do sybals, but it greek symbols. I do not consistently us it, but when impostos a on da loose, i use it consitally.<p>Looks: aw wight. Iaall tell ya. I heve brownie eyes and have a purty thick coat of blackish grey-ish fur. (I have a fwend and her cat looks like dat. Her name is Sasha. The cats name is.)<p>History: I were part o Bloodclan, but left because it was too active (fancy that!) And came here.<p>Other: Jut ask!<><><>
1. How long have you been in the Revolution? <br> ?.....I dunno, actually. A while. I think you were little when I get here, Ferns...... that or I was little. One of the two. <p> 2. How old is your cat? <br> Probably around four by now. <p> 3. Name? <br> Clockwork, with this: ※ around it. Clock or Clocky for short. <p> 4. How active are you on a scale of 1-10? <br> Probably around a seven, actually. I may not POST much here, but I'm always watching. I wake up at six on weekdays, and will check in before going to school. Today I have tech from 5pm -12 am. So yeah... late then. But tomorrow I'm free, as I am most weekends. After school on weekdays I try to be on a lot too. On mondays I'm gone from 8-9 ish. And on wednesdays and sometimes thursdays I get back from school around 5 ish. <p> 5. How well of a fighter are you? <br> Was that question a bit weird gramatically or was it just me? Anyway, I personally think I'm a good fighter. I've killed cats, and without godmodding. I've had practice from other rps. U do a lot of evil clan cats. <p> 6. Are you willing go die for this clan? <br> I wouldn't have joined if I wasnt. <p> 7. Do you ever feel the need to godmod? <br> OH MY GOD I HATE GODMODDING! Seriously, I either ignore it or make the person correct their actions because it irritates me so much. And 90% of the time it's a neewb doing it. GOD I hate it. I would die before I godmodded. <p> 8. Do you promise to advertise at least once a day? <br> I'm forgetful but I'll certainlty try! <p> My bio is at ' revolution' res three.... you need to scroll a bit.
Alright. I finally can get to my announcement. <p> I will temporarily take place as leader until Jay or Grim returns. I need a co-deputy to help me, so applications will be held in this result. What you need in the application: <br> How long have you been in the Revolution? <br> How old is your cat? <br> Name? <br> How active are you on a scale 1-10? <br> How well of a fighter are you? <br> Are you willing to die for this clan? <br> Do you ever feel the need to godmod? Be honest. <br> Do you promise to advertise at least once a day? <p> If you have anything else you woulf like to add, feel free to do so. Apllications start on the 10th and end on the 14th of May. <p> Note: to be accepted you MUST have a detailed biography and have rped at least two days at the Revolution. <br> Good luck, and may the odds be ever in your favor cx